Have we reached Peak True Crime? The People v O.J. Simpson just swept the Emmys, Serial and Making a Murderer have had profound effects on their respective cases, and arguably the most acclaimed film of the year is another O.J. story, this one a seven-hour documentary produced by ESPN.
Into that crowded arena steps Amanda Knox, a nonfiction Netflix movie about Italy’s crime of the decade — one decided in the court of public opinion long before the defendant ever went to trial.
The story is familiar to most by now, but directors Brian McGinn and Rod Blackhurst remind us of the particulars: Knox, then 20, was charged with murder while studying abroad in Italy after her roommate Meredith Kercher was murdered in late 2007. Eight years of trials, convictions, and acquittals followed, all of it accompanied by salacious headlines alluding to the accused’s supposed sexual exploits (“Foxy Knoxy” was among her tabloid-friendly nicknames).
Certain facts remain cloudy nine years later, but we at least know what we don’t know. As evidenced by this documentary, that applies most directly to Knox herself. Like a lot of accidentally infamous figures, she’s become a Rorschach blot whose true form depends on the eye of the beholder.
Knox has clearly had ample time to brood on this, and she immediately zeros in on the fear surrounding her: The idea that she’s guilty is terrifying because she isn’t the kind of person you think of as a murderer; the idea that she didn’t do it is even more so because then everyone is vulnerable.
“Either I’m a psychopath in sheep’s clothing,” she says, “or I am you.” Cue the stirring string music and archival footage touching on the murder itself and subsequent years of media speculation.
McGinn and Blackhurst have no shortage of such footage to work with, and they make compelling use of it. Amanda Knox begins with chilling camcorder footage of the crime scene, the kind it feels like you shouldn’t be seeing: blood on the floor and walls, an almost uncertain hand guiding the camera.
Also prominently featured are one of the lead detectives from the case and a Daily Mail reporter who covered the whole ordeal, neither of whom make great cases for themselves. The purveyor of sensationalist headlines points his finger at the police while ignoring his own role in the case. Meanwhile the detective seems to have made up his mind about Knox early on and dismissed most evidence to the contrary. (“These are my eyes,” Knox says of this feelings-over-facts approach, which unsurprisingly had much to do with her appearance. “They’re not objective evidence.”)
Like a lot of true-crime docs, Amanda Knox is well made and compelling enough to make you wonder whether you’re being worked in its early goings. Enough of the dust has settled by now that the filmmakers don’t bother making this the definitive search for What Really Happened, nor do they need to — this is a nine-year ordeal condensed to 90 minutes. As such, it’s hardly exhaustive. McGinn and Blackhurst don’t seem interested in crafting a postmortem on the murder and subsequent trial; rather, they provide a platform for Knox’s first-person account of her own experiences.
She’s the most chillingly insightful here, unsurprising given that she’s the only one to live through every moment. Knox speaks most compellingly on the concept of real-life monsters, how people want to see them because it assures them that, should evil truly exist, it isn’t them. They’re the good ones, watching on TV or reading newspapers. But if they’re wrong, and Amanda Knox is one of the good ones too, then what kind of monsters are truly out there?
Directed by Brian McGinn and Rod Blackhurst
Starts Friday, Netflix